Green Gold: Early Harvest Olive Oils
Harvesting olives when they are green is trending up. The result is fresher, more aromatic extra virgin olive oils which reflect a commitment to quality and health.
In the mid-1980s, Manuel Heredia took over the family oil mill on the right bank of the Guadajoz River, next to the village of Albendín, in Baena, Córdoba. "At that time, the olives were harvested using traditional methods, by shaking the tree so that the olives that fell to the ground were the ones that were sufficiently ripe. That's why the harvesting process began on December 26th, just after Christmas," he recalls. "If, at that time, we had wanted to harvest the olives early, with a stick, we would have ruined the tree," he says.
Today, 35 years later, the situation has changed radically. The oil produced by Manuel Heredia, Cortijo de Suerte Alta, in Baena PDO, has received countless national and international awards, making early harvesting its distinguishing quality. "If you want to make a high quality EVOO, it has to be an early harvest oil. The first thing you have to understand is that an extra virgin olive oil is a fruit juice. In the same way that a perfect orange juice can only be obtained from a perfect orange, the same is true of the olive. It must be picked from the tree at the ideal moment, the envero, when the olive is changing from green to purple." In fact, one of the examples he mentions is the Picual during envero oil they produce, which refers specifically to the moment when that olive is changing color.
Borja Adrián, Commercial Director of Finca La Torre, another olive oil mill in Antequera (Málaga) which has won many awards, including five Alimentos de España distinctions, sums up two of the benefits of early harvesting. "On the one hand, you have a healthier product because the polyphenol content is much higher as it uses unripened green olives. On the other hand, the aromas and flavors that appear when you taste it have nothing to do with those of a ripe extra virgin olive oil. Here you find grass, tomato, etc. Moreover, the aromas and flavors are very intense and the bitterness and spiciness, although they're there and they give the oil a special touch, are balanced." At Finca La Torre, they start harvesting at the beginning of October and finish at the end of November. They make four single varietal oils: 100% Hojiblanca, 100% Arbequina, 100% Cornicabra and 100% Picudo, and they also have a special version, the One, made only with olives collected on the first day of harvest: a more ambitious version of what it means to make an early harvest oil.
A lower yield, better quality
Early harvesting significantly reduces the yield. "From an overripe olive you can get up to 25% of its content in the form of oil. However, from a green olive this percentage is reduced to 12%. That's practically half. This means that these oils are more expensive to produce and, logically, sell at a higher price," explains Heredia. Adrián also emphasizes one of the concepts that is usually associated with early harvesting: the "first extraction." The Commercial Director of Finca La Torre explains that "in high quality oils there is never a second extraction; you're left with only the best, the first one. The same thing happens with the 'cold extraction' method. If you want to preserve the polyphenols and you don't want to damage the olives when crushing them, it has to remain below 20 degrees. This also maintains the oil's flavors and aromas."
Andalusia was a pioneer in launching early harvest oils, and today all of the Andalusian DOs are firmly committed to this type of oil. "They are still largely unknown, but their health benefits, together with their intense aromas of green fruit, citrus, and aromatic herbs, is making them increasingly popular," says Carmen Cristina de Toro, Director General of Industry, Innovation and the Agri-food Chain within the Andalusian Regional Government. "Given their aromas of freshness and sweetness, we tend to compare them to real perfumes. And we can play with these characteristics, discover all of the secrets they hide and create our ideal coupage," says Carmen
José Luis Murcia, Executive Director of the WOOE (World Olive Oil Exhibition), the most important fair in the sector in Spain and which returns in March 2022 after a two-year break due to the pandemic, believes that "There is a clear demand for early harvest oil, a green, fragrant oil..." However, he warns that "they have a short life," because maturation reduces the positive qualities from the upripened olives. When it comes to using it, he has no doubt that it has to be "raw." These early harvest oils are perfect for dressing or accompanying fish or meat, which allows you to enjoy all their nuances, although there's no shortage of people who use them to make fried eggs: ¡a real treat!